Monday, October 25, 2010

Fire When Ready

During these tough economic times, a goodly number of unfortunate people have had to ankle their jobs. Ankle, with the suggestion of walking, is Variety-ese for “to leave a position,” either voluntarily or otherwise.  The otherwise part, as many know too well, can be expressed in a variety of words meaning “to dismiss” or “to discharge” an employee.  Some have long etymological histories, which you probably didn’t stop to investigate when you were being fired, sacked, canned, or axed. 

Most common nowadays is to fire, or, if on the passive side of the equation, to be fired. As a metaphorical verb, fire has been around at least since the 12th century, when it meant “to arouse or excite,” stemming from the Old English word fyrian, “to supply with fire.”  The first known usage of the word meaning “to dismiss from employment” occurred in the 1880s. It probably originated as a play on the two meanings of discharge, i.e. “to fire a gun” and “to terminate employment.” Originally the phrase was fired out (of a job), but in 1889, the Pall Mall Gazette used the word in its modern sense: “A Commissioner who should be discovered to have reported a subordinate unjustly would be fired from his high post.”

To sack a worker has even older provenance.  Perhaps originating from the idea of an artisan going away with his tools in a bag, the original term was to give the sack (to someone).  A 17th century French occurrence of the phrase luy a donné son sac has been noted by the Online Etymological Dictionary. An 1841 article in the Catholic News reported: “He said that he had just come from Glasgow, and that he had been ‘sacked.’”

To can, meaning to preserve foods in tin cans can be found as early as 1871, but its use as a synonym for dismiss—probably with the connotation of one’s being put out of circulation—dates only to 1905. And ax, meaning to economize either by cutting expenses or cutting employees from the payroll, came into general usage in the 1920s.

The British, in their inscrutable delicacy, prefer to make an undesired worker redundant

Redundancy is the raison d’être of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, to wit:  

            No sooner had the boss agreed to hire me,
            Than she began to threaten she would fire me,
            Ax me, can me, sack me, terminate me.
            And that began to really aggravate me.
            But most of all it would antagonize me
            If I heard her threaten to downsize me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lopping Sweaters

Weekend Edition, heard Sundays on National Public Radio, recently had a contest for listeners to create a riddle whose answer is a spoonerism.  As you all know, or should if you read Words Gone Wild (Skyhorse Publishing, $22.95), a spoonerism is a transposition of the initial sounds of two words so that it results in two other words, preferably humorous in their context.  The Rev. William Archibald Spooner, who was a very dizzy bean of New College at Oxford University, was noted for committing this verbal blunder—expressions such as “the Lord is shoving leopard” and the like.

The winning entry of the NPR competition was from Michael True of Falls Church, Virginia—or was that Michael Falls of True Church, Virginia?  Anyway, his riddle, judged the best of probably hundreds, maybe thousands, that were submitted, is: What’s the difference between a wedding chapel and a restaurant’s daily specials? The answer: One is a marrying venue, and the other is a varying menu.

The runners-up were pretty good, too.  Pat Mauer of Los Angeles wanted you to guess the difference between a guinea hen and a young witch, and if you didn’t know, you would be told: One is a wild chicken and the other is a child Wiccan.

I also liked Gary Disch’s third-place entry, all the way from Ottawa: the difference between a dasher and a haberdasher is that one makes short spurts and the other makes sports shirts.

The Bud of Barfalo Bayou has been known to spoonerize in his time, too.

            In full-length mink and fine fur hat,
            She thought that she disguised her fat.
            Most people found her fur suit hairy,
            And thought she was a hirsute fairy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beauty Contest

A couple of blogs ago I provided readers with some of what are regarded as the ugliest words in the English language—you remember flatulent, cacophony, sticktoitniveness, phlegm, kumquat, and all those others.  Now the Beautiful People who use Beautiful Words have demanded equal time and space. 

There is no shortage of words regarded as beautiful.  Not too long ago in The New York Times “On Language” column, Grant Barrett reported that an incredible number of people think that the most beautiful word we can come up with (actually two words) is cellar door.  Among those who have unaccountably expressed such a view are H. L. Mencken, Albert Payson Terhune, Henrik Willem Van Loon, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Jean Nathan, C. S. Lewis, Norman Mailer, and Dorothy Parker (although she confessed she really preferred the words check enclosed).  The screenplay of Donnie Darko also explores the idea of cellar door’s beauty.  

Cellar door was not among the words Wilfred Funk (you know, Funk & Wagnalls) offered in a lengthy list, topped by asphodel, fawn, dawn, chalice, anemone, tranquil, hush, golden, halcyon, camellia, and bobolink.

Wordmaster Willard R. Espy (An Almanac of Words at Play) compiled his own list of beauties for The Book of Lists.  Heading Espy’s list (surprise!) is gonorrhea, presumably chosen for its sound alone.  Others Espy favors are gossamer, lullaby, meandering, mellifluous, murmuring, onomatopoeia, Shenandoah, and wisteria.

Dr. Robert Beard, who operates a website called AlphaDictionary, has a list of one hundred beautiful words, in alphabetical order, a few highlights of which are:  chiaroscuro, diaphanous, evanescent, epiphany, languor, mellifluous, obsequious, penumbra, propinquity, symbiosis, and syzygy.

A survey of noted authors turned up these favorites: home (Lowell Thomas), Chattanooga (Irvin S. Cobb), violet (Louis Untermeyer), and cuspidor (James Joyce).  Maybe Joyce was actually thinking of cellar door.

Finally, the British Council polled non-English speakers who were learning the language, and their choices for most beautiful English words included:  mother, love, passion, smile, eternity, destiny, bliss, cherish, enthusiasm, lullaby, sunshine, sweetheart, bumblebee, coconut, flabbergasted, hiccup, peekaboo, and whoops.

Your nominees for Most Beautiful will be read with interest by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, before he tosses them into the wastebasket.

            Oh, how I love you, cellar door,           
            You are a joy, a thing of beauty,
            Much nicer than the basement floor,
            Although that, too, can be a cutie.

            O, cellar door, please give me more,
            You always make me feel ecstatic.
            The first-floor door is such a bore,
            And I hate the doorway to the attic.

            For cellar door I shout “Encore!”
            I dream of you in restless slumber.
            What is it that I so adore?
            You’re just some hardware and some lumber.

            No, it’s not a hasp or plank
            That thrills me with such blissful twinges,
            For what I love—and I’ll be frank—
            O, cellar door, is all your hinges!

Monday, October 4, 2010

That’s So Retro!

Taken pictures with a film camera lately?  Ridden an upright bicycle?  Or eaten any pork bacon?  These seemingly redundant expressions are known as retronyms—new terms created from existing words in order to distinguish the original referent from a later one, usually as a result of technological advance. The word retronym was coined in the 1980s, from the Latin retro (“backward”) and the Greek onuma (“name”).

Time was when all cameras used film, all bicycles were upright, and all bacon was as porcine as Paddy’s pig.  But then came digital cameras, recumbent bicycles, and turkey bacon, so the qualifier was needed for the originals.  Same thing with acoustic guitars, cloth diapers, snow skis, beef fajitas, analog clocks, hot tea, biological parents, manual typewriters, push mowers, the naked eye, and snail mail. Even real life has been coined to distinguish what we live every day from soap operas or simulated life in a game with avatars.

Wikipedia goes so far as to suggest that George H. W. Bush is a retronym, since he used to be plain George Bush, but felt the need to be distinguished from his son, and you can understand why.

Speaking of “backward,” one is inevitably put in mind of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose middle name is Retro.

            With that indispensable utensil,
            A plain old yellow wood-and-graphite pencil,
            A writer once could make a sentence caper
            Upon a ragged sheet of wood-pulp paper.
            But now a writer has to be astuter
            And utilize a digital computer
            In order to be praised as smart and metro,
            And not condemned as something old and retro.